I’m not going to bother coming up with a witty intro (you, in the back, shouting “That’s never stopped you before!” – you may shut up now) because not only was this movie bad, it actually made me angry. And as much cinema of dubious quality as I watch, for a movie to make me angry is a rare event indeed.
The third adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel (which I have not read, sadly), The Island of Dr. Moreau starts not-too-promisingly with an opening credits montage of eyes, critter-cam effects, and microscopic views of cells and parameciums and amoebas and things. It’s scary! And there’s, you know, science and stuff!
Our protagonist – he doesn’t do anything that would have us call him a hero – is Edward Douglas (David Thewlis, clearly gritting his teeth and waiting until the director calls it a wrap). He’s stranded in the middle of the Java Sea with two other survivors of a plane crash. Soon the two other survivors kill each other over the last remaining canteen, leaving Douglas alone. Soon after, he’s picked up by a boat. It’s never clear who the people on the boat are – suppliers, pirates? What matters is that a fellow named Montgomery (Val Kilmer, looking stoned to the gills) is on board.
We soon find out that Montgomery is the right hand man of Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando the human dumpling), a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who’s been thought dead for years but in reality is on his own private island, genetically modifying animals into humans, with varying levels of success. Montgomery keeps the man-critters doped up, and when that isn’t enough to keep them in line, Moreau gives them electrical shocks via an implant. Damn, they’ll give those Nobel Prizes to anybody, won’t they?
Even if you hadn’t read the book or seen the other two adaptations, you’d know that the man-critters get fed up and rebel. What you might not guess is that Moreau would be played as a cross between Hannibal Lecter, Truman Capote, and the Pillsbury Dough-Boy. You might not guess that Moreau would gad about in caftans, white pancake makeup, and at one point wear an ice bucket on his head. Nor would you guess that Montgomery not only dresses up like Moreau but talks like him too, and says the line “I want to go to dog heaven” with feeling.
It sounds campy as hell, and it is. Yet is somehow manages to be remarkably boring as well. Part of this is because of the script – the only flourishes that lift this film out of the utterly predictable are the wackaloon antics of Brando and Kilmer. The script also doesn’t give us anyone to be interested in, let alone care about. Thewlis’ character is the obvious choice, but all we ever learn about him is that he was on some sort of U.N. mission when his plane crashed. That’s it. I kept waiting for some further relevance – that he was a radical PETA activist come to avenge fluffy bunnies, or something – but he’s a complete cipher who exists only to look outraged at the man-critters, yell “Damn” when Montgomery busts the radio, and loll his head in an odd fashion (I’m still not sure what that was about).
John Frankenheimer’s direction does the movie no favors – as anyone who saw the turgid icky bear movie Prophecy, Frankenheimer can’t direct horror. (The exception is the final sequence of his 1966 film Seconds, which is truly horrifying.) Not only is the film not scary, it’s poorly paced. The middle third in particular is more of a random collection of scenes than a dramatic arc. And of course, Frankenheimer throws in some sledgehammer-subtle “who are the REAL animals?” social commentary including a montage of Third World people all cranky and pissed off.
The acting is everything you’ve heard about and then some. Brando’s bizarre appearance aside, his acting isn’t atrocious – it’s just impossible to tell if he intended to play Moreau as a goofy eccentric or if he saw the whole movie as a colossal joke. Thewlis seems to be just biding his time until the closing credits. Kilmer turns in a train wreck of a performance – his Montgomery is a stoned and batshit-crazy blowhard, and he seems to have really, really gotten into the character, if you know what I mean and I think you do. The only actor to survive the film with dignity intact is Ron Perlman as the Sayer of the Law.
The one thing in the movie’s favor is Stan Winston’s creature makeup effects, which are remarkable. Unfortunately the effect is dulled when it’s juxtaposed with a laughably fake slaughtered rabbit – my kid’s plushie toy bunny is more realistic.
So why was I angry? Because everyone involved should have known better. I can forgive incompetence in a debut film or a low-budget effort, but there’s too much experience and money behind this film for it to have been this bad. There’s also an extremely unpleasant scene involving the dwarf man who dresses like Moreau and was the inspiration for Mini-Me. At one point, and for no reason beyond exploitation, this person is shown naked. It seems to be a cheap shock tactic worthy of a 1930s freak show, not a major motion picture. I considered giving the film a Total Shit rating for this, but decided to give the benefit of the doubt and hope everyone’s intentions were good. If they weren’t, then Frankenheimer ought to be ashamed of himself, even if he is dead.
Extras are nothing too exciting – U.S. and international trailers, and a featurette I couldn’t bring myself to sit through.
I need to go watch Ronin now – a GOOD Frankenheimer film – to help me forget about this one.